The Fort Frances Lakers have been pretty good road warriors all season long.
If they want to make it to the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, they will have to continue that trend for at least one more game.
The Lakers lost home-ice advantage in the SIJHL’s best-of-seven Bill Salonen Cup final after the Minnesota Iron Rangers pulled out a 3-2 win in Game 2 on Saturday at the Ice for Kids Arena.
What has been a bitterly-contested series now shifts to Hoyt Lakes, Minn. for Game 3 tonight and Game 4 tomorrow night.
Game 5 is slated for Saturday at the IFK Arena at 7:30 p.m.
If necessary, Game 6 will take place on Monday in Hoyt Lakes, while Game 7 will be back at the IFK Arena next Wednesday (April 23) at 7:30 p.m.
But, as for the matter currently at hand …
“We have had success on the road all year and found ways to win,” said Lakers general manager and head coach Wayne Strachan.
“We have no need to panic. It’s a best out of five now and we know we have to go into their rink and secure a win. We will be ready and focused for (tonight),” he added.
The Lakers seemed to be a team on an unstoppable roll after winning their sixth playoff game in a row in Friday’s electrifying 1-0 triumph in Game 1, thanks to Miles Nolan’s league-high 13th playoff goal at 10:37 of double-overtime.
That good feeling carried over into Game 2, with Kevin Kurm opening the scoring at 4:55 of the first with his second goal of the playoffs on a setup from fellow “KAN” Line members Brent Aiken and Nolan.
Sam Mancini tied it at 7:07, but Donovan Cousineau gave the lead back to Fort Frances at 11:11.
The Lakers’ offence ran dry after that, stopped time and again by Rangers goalie Alex Reichle, who was named Pizza Hut player of the week after allowing only three goals in 80 shots during the first two games of the series.
“I believe we got the start we wanted,” noted Strachan.
“Just the lack of offensive production through 60 minutes was the deciding factor,” he added.
“We had a couple of breakdowns they capitalized on and their goalie did the rest to solidify their win.”
Mancini broke through for his second of the game at 17:03 of the second to send the teams into the third all square.
The Lakers outshot the Rangers 13-10 in the third, but the only marker came off a deflection by Matt O’Dea in front of the Fort Frances net at 13:27.
Reichle held firm with 32 saves for the victory, while Devin Tappenden suffered the loss with a 24-save performance.
After being shut out in Game 1, the Lakers’ power-play unit was again stymied on its only two chances on Saturday and is now 0-for-9 in the series after working at better than 25 percent efficiency during the regular season.
“No doubt, we need our power-play to get going,” stressed Strachan.
“I think we have moved the puck well enough on our man-advantages, but we have not got enough pucks to the net or attacked the net with traffic enough to have success.
“We need to bear down and get some hunger when we get a man-advantage. We will work on things in practice and try and get mentally prepared.”
Game 1 was noteworthy for two reasons for the Lakers even before the puck dropped.
The squad and league’s leading scorer, Lucas DeBenedet, celebrated his birthday on Friday.
Meanwhile, defenceman Cody Wickstrom skated out with the ‘C’ on his sweater, as Patrick Sofer surrendered his captaincy to Wickstrom earlier in the week during practice.
The two teams traded multiple opportunities, but Tappenden and Reichle were up to the task time and again.
It fell to Nolan to keep his terrific saga going, which he did by banging the puck past Reichle from in close, initiating a black-and-red dogpile in the left corner of the Rangers’ zone as the Lakers gang tackled the Geraldton native.
“I got the puck from Aiken and took a shot off the side of the net,” described Nolan, who was flat-out stoned by Reichle from close in with 2;47 left in the third.
“The puck went over to Kurm and he tipped it back to me.
“I had it on the goal line and I saw the goalie cheat over a bit, and I just flipped it over him,” said Nolan.
Strachan wasn’t overly surprised his most dangerous line this playoff season would light the lamp when it was needed most.
“When you’re hot, you’re hot,” he conceded. “It’s a fitting story for him and his linemates to get the winner.”
Already a towering figure at six-foot-five, Tappenden stood even taller than usual with a 39-save effort to gain the shutout, while Reichle finished with 45 stops.
In other league news, Thunder Bay North Stars forward Daniel Del Paggio added to his awards haul by being named the SIJHL’s RBC scholastic player of the year.
Del Paggio, who was selected as the league’s player of the year, receives a $1,000 scholarship and is in the running for the Hockey Canada/Canadian Junior Hockey League/RBC scholastic player of the year award, which includes a $5,000 scholarship.